Diaspora Jews have always been proud of the fact that the state of Israel functions as a full-fledged democracy. Recently, this core strength of Israel has been the subject of numerous attacks, mostly as a result of highly publicized clashes involving the ultra-Orthodox (“haredi”) segment of Israeli society. Reports that the state of Israel was heading toward an Iran-style theocracy, or a “Haredistan,” had to be denied. Editorial tones suggested that something unprecedented was taking place on the societal level, that it may be time for an Israeli civil war or that Israeli society is unraveling. A key observation was made by President Shimon Peres, who called the conflict in Beit Shemesh “a test for our nation to save the majority from the claws of a small minority that gnaws at the foundations of democracy.”
These events and their analyses have left several major questions unanswered. For example, how was it possible for the only eight percent of Israeli Jews that define themselves as haredi to bring Israeli society to the brink of civil unrest? And how was it possible for such fissures to emerge precisely as the state of Israel is facing the unparalleled Iranian threat of nuclear genocide?
One possible answer is that building a seamless Israeli society requires more than two generations. In 2005 Natan Sharansky wrote that Israel “is a society made up of distinct groups that tend to keep mostly to themselves, put sectarian interests above national ones, and compete for control of the country. For a society that is still very much in its formative period, and in many ways still fighting for its survival, this does not bode well.”
Envy and scorn
Some basic teachings of social psychology illustrate the inherent weaknesses of a society subdivided in groups.
In any society, groups manage their collective goals, and their members, by using group emotions. Belonging to a group can be very powerful for individuals because “the group extends the self”; it provides identity, coherence and values and helps individuals resolve their anxieties and uncertainties.
A key aspect of group behavior is that groups organize themselves through two basic human emotions: envy and scorn. Just like it is natural for individuals to compare themselves to others, groups also feel they have to pay attention to other groups if they wish to control their own fate. But such comparisons tend to highlight discrepancies within the group. If a group feels that it is at a disadvantage for unfair or undeserved reasons, group relations can become volatile and result in collective action, including violence and aggression. Jews are particularly sensitive to inequities among groups because they feel connected to each other and because they share a deeply rooted Abrahamic abhorrence of injustice.
Haredim are easy targets for media caricatures that portray them as holier-than-thou toward all other Jews, oblivious to gender equality, and lawless.
These group characteristics apply to haredim because their identity, self-esteem and relevance are highly dependent on belonging to their group or particular sub-group. Such group identity becomes an issue if it outstrips the feeling of national identity or Jewish peoplehood. If a haredi Jew feels “I am haredi first, Jew second, Israeli third,” group identity becomes dangerous for society.
Haredim are also easy targets for media caricatures that portray them as holier-than-thou toward other Jews, oblivious to gender equality, and lawless, emphasizing the fact that many of them do not serve in the army. This media campaign resonated with a broad anti-haredi banner raised by a large segment of Israeli society. Haredim are not oblivious to these depictions. Their sense that they are resented and despised has given rise to the emotional roots of inter-group aggression: short-term anger and long-term hatred. At that point, they become oblivious to the Iranian threat.
Focus on Jewish peoplehood
In addition to the recommendation that the prime minister fashion a new civic covenant between haredim and Israeli society, it is suggested that haredim take positive steps to regain the trust and respect of other Jews. At the same time, the large non-haredi segment of society should realize that Jews are highly sensitive to the opinions of other Jews. Therefore, for Jews, the pain of contempt is amplified.
Throughout our history, ‘arevut’ has been the “Jewish remedy” to the challenges posed by all types of group divisiveness.
It is also a matter of urgency to address the dangers of other instances of group divisiveness, particularly toward the six percent of Israelis living in Judea and Samaria, who may become ostracized as a result of protracted misunderstandings, hurtful propaganda and resentment. Many Jews are more sensitive to stereotyping, criticism and exclusion by other Jews than to external threats to their survival.
The experience of the last few months suggests that the new generation of Israeli and Diaspora Jews requires more emphasis and focus on the notion of Jewish peoplehood. Jewish peoplehood is unique because it is based on the concept of arevut, or mutual responsibility, which transcends individual allegiances to specific groups, whatever the label. Throughout our history, arevut has been the “Jewish remedy” to the challenges posed by all instances of group divisiveness. Therefore, global action is needed to incorporate the teaching of arevut in the curricula of schools, high schools and colleges. If we take that single step, it may take no more than one generation for the Jewish people to become a true “light unto the nations.”
Dr Rene H. Levy is Professor Emeritus of Pharmaceutics at the University of Washington and the author of the recently published Baseless Hatred: What it is and What You can do about it, where the issue of “Sinat Hinam” is approached in an analytical fashion.